All populist movements, we’ve seen so far, reject the notion that a nation’s sovereign interests should be subordinated to some transnational agenda, whether the E.U., open borders, or climate change. How these movements and their leaders come to power is fascinating. What they do with it once held, however, is anything but predictable.
Brazil – Younger and even cruder than dreaded “Orange Man”
Brazil has been ruled largely by the centre-left since the end of military dictatorship in 1985. Persistent violence, multifaceted and prodigious government corruption and a failing economy led to the election last October of Jair Bolsonaro – frequently called the “Trump of the Tropics”. The victory by Bolsonaro and his Social Liberal Party was a break from many years of rule by Brazil’s Worker’s Party, whose symbol is an enormous red star and which historically was rife with hard leftists. Luiz “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s two-term president in the early 2000s and a darling of international bien pensants, was recently re-sentenced to 12 years in prison for his prominent role in the vast corruption scandal.
Like Donald Trump, the 64-year-old Bolsonaro seems to relish provoking his opponents, who return the favour with similar loathing. Bolsonaro was attacked and stabbed in the stomach during last fall’s election campaign, a near-tragedy the news media have all-but forgotten. Most of the verbal attacks on Bolsonaro stem from his social conservatism and his praise for the old military junta, leading many to fear for Brazil’s fragile democratic structures. He infamously declared the dictatorship had been a “very good” time for Brazil, and that if he had a gay son he’d “prefer that he die in an accident.” His views on indigenous relations are the opposite of Canada’s prime minister’s “reconciliation” agenda.
One international columnist called Bolsonaro a “homophobic, misogynist, racist thing.” But unlike other populists, this “thing” won majorities of college-educated voters, urban voters, business owners, and women, perhaps because he also insisted he’s a “defender of freedom” and that Brazil’s “laws are for everyone”.
Bolsonaro has governed more in line with the latter than the former rhetoric. To aid in the fight against Brazil’s rampant violent crime he decided to help ordinary Brazilians help themselves by liberalizing gun laws. To boost the economy he initiated massive pension reform. Even the Financial Times has offered tepid praise for his economic program. If, the paper suggested, his instincts to appoint a number of pro-business and pro-trade economic liberals to senior positions are borne out, “the wilder statements of Mr Bolsonaro could then be dismissed as drawing the eyes of the crowd — while the real work is actually going on backstage.”
Unless Bolsonaro utterly destroys Brazil’s constitution, and the country goes along with it, whatever anti-democratic impulses he may harbour should be constrained by Brazil’s incredibly fractious National Congress. It features an astounding 30 separate parties with seats, making compromise essential to the art of the deal in Brazil.
Hungary – Sinister, sensible, or a bit of both?
Hungary was early to the populist party and, accordingly, was flagged a threat long before the others. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stoked nationalist sentiment by using anti-Semitic conspiracy theories involving international financier George Soros – accusing him either of smuggling in migrants or undermining the Hungarian government. At the same time, Orbán has been a decidedly strong friend of Israel, more in keeping with his background as a liberal reformer during the dismantling of Communism. He also attended Oxford on a grant program established by none other than George Soros.
So while Orbán is anything but a cartoon-cut-out populist, his opponents and nearly all international news media portray him ceaselessly as such. He is routinely accused of stealing Hungary’s meagre wealth, destroying its democracy, bullying and threatening the news media, and preparing to cast its minorities to the ravenous Magyar wolves. A rare exception is journalist Christopher Caldwell, who in this article portrayed Orbán as a thoughtful, brave and even visionary defender of core Western values.
Adding to the difficulty of getting an accurate handle on Orbán are his offbeat descriptions of normally comprehensible political concepts. He claims credit, for example, for believing in illiberal democracy, something he explained in a recent interview: “Liberalism gave rise to political correctness – that is, to a form of totalitarianism, which is the opposite of democracy. That’s why I believe that illiberalism restores true freedom, true democracy.” Had he used “conservative” or “traditional” rather than “illiberal”, the passage would be easier to swallow – as well as less provocative and attention-grabbing.
Following his Fidesz party’s loss in 1994 to Hungary’s Socialists, Orbán recognized the power of extreme rhetoric and nationalism, and rode them into office before others in the West had figured it out. Orbán was Prime Minister from 1998-2002, regained power in 2011, and was most recently re-elected last year despite an avalanche of negative international press and enormous pressure from the EU – or perhaps partly because of those phenomena.
Anti-EU sentiment in Hungary stems largely from its people’s acute consciousness of their only recently restored freedom. “Our partners have to realize that the Hungarians are an ancient people, free and proud, who will not be lectured to,” Orbán told a French interviewer. “We were occupied by the Ottomans. By the Slavs. By the Communists. We didn’t go through this so we could fall under the thumb of Brussels.”
This sensibility was intensified by circumstances. At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, the nation of 9.8 million received the EU’s highest rate of asylum claims – 1,770 per 100,000 population. Most “refugees” appeared to be primarily economic migrants, as they left the countries they landed in and looked for greener pastures – especially in Germany. As a result, Hungary became a major transit point. On just one day in September 2015, over 3,000 migrants entered Hungary. But many weren’t just passing through, for 161,000 claimed asylum in the first eight months of 2015, overwhelming a small country that already sends many people to more developed EU countries due to poor economic opportunity.
This fuelled not only Hungarians’ anger at the EU, but nationalist sentiment. Defying the EU outright and stunning the European establishment, in summer 2015 the Orbán government threw up a 3.5-metre-tall fence bristling with coils of razor wire along its entire 350-km-long border with Croatia and Serbia, through which most of the migrants were streaming. That October, Hungary closed its border. This was accompanied by a multi-pronged crackdown on asylum-seekers, especially those entering from an already safe country. All of this occurred well before Italy’s populist shift, suggesting Hungary’s example stiffened the spines of populists there and elsewhere.
Even after all that, however, Orbán and Fidesz received only 49 percent of the popular vote in the April 2018 election. This was still a strong plurality in a multi-party system and enough to give the party a 133-seat supermajority in Hungary’s 199-seat parliament. Fidesz benefited as much from a fragmented opposition as from heavy-handed tactics, although those were real.
Orbán, 56, has been directly compared to Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin, each of them Communists responsible for the death of millions, and his party deemed “fascist”. Despite this, even Edward Luce, a progressive columnist, has said that Orbán got one thing right – Europe should have strengthened its external borders before weakening its internal ones, acknowledging the need for even liberal entities such as the EU to control who comes in and who doesn’t. Due to threats of being kicked out of the European People’s Party (EPP), Orbán’s government has backed off planned judicial reforms that were seen by the EU, and his centre-right allies across the continent, as running roughshod over judicial independence.
Following the recent European elections in which populist parties won a plurality of seats, Fidesz also ruled out partnering with Matteo Salvini’s Eurosceptic coalition of parties, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, to remain with the more mainstream EPP. When pressed hard enough by outsiders, Hungary’s Orbán is clearly willing to moderate – not the usual tactics of an extreme populist or power-mad proto-dictator.
What’s it all about, and what happens now?
While policies overlap between populist movements and certain themes recur, policy isn’t what unites these disparate organizations. What are the common elements? Opponents have invested greatly in the narrative that they comprise little more than barely concealed emotions, and vicious ones at that – bigotry and hate – combined with an animalistic will to power and a willingness to say anything along the way. That view has taken hold among governing elites plus plenty of regular people, among them a surprising number of mainstream conservatives, including in Canada.
If viewed without a vested interest in the narrative, however, it’s difficult to attribute the populists’ numerous worldwide successes to such vacuity. Investigation reveals the centrality of one or more policies – policies that a large segment of the population had come to view as decisive to their nation’s economy, cultural character or very existence. Matters of profound substance were at stake.
In all instances, the governing establishment – sometimes including every established political party – either refused to address the people’s concerns or actively thwarted them – and often condemned the people themselves merely for being concerned. That, too, characterizes Canada. While the populists’ bombastic rhetoric became the focus of much elite condemnation, it’s difficult to attribute the intensity of the antagonism purely to aesthetic revulsion over style and tone – although as with the elites’ disdain for Trump, that surely is part of it. The larger element seems to be simple fear.
The populists’ main “crime” has been bringing the formerly unmentionable into political play. In country after country, as populism and nationalism shifted from the outer fringes to the centre of the political conversation, the elites’ curled lips and waved wrists morphed into the trembling of fear – though often under a veneer of hatred and condemnation. Curiously, these are some of the very emotions the purveyors of the narrative habitually attribute to the populists.
The current phenomenon of populism is a revolt by large segments of society against the governing elite, its oppressive political correctness and its refusal even to consider alternative views. This is what every populist movement has in common. The elites are different groups of people from country to country, pursuing a variety of policies, but in all cases they are disconnected from a large plurality if not majority of the population.
The very rigidity and closed-mindedness of their resistance heightened their country’s internal political risks. If the populists weren’t contained or crushed, the country’s very governing arrangements could be disrupted and its established parties swept aside or demolished. In nearly all instances, the elites’ arrogance blinded them to these risks. In some countries, the result was crisis and realignment. This hasn’t happened everywhere. Australia, for example, still has its same main parties. But in other countries – the U.K. and Italy are two – decades – or even century-old leading parties have dropped to single-digit popularity.
Sometimes the triggering policy areas included technocratic austerity, as in Italy. In Hungary, the chief concern was the surrender of sovereignty only 20 years after liberation from totalitarianism. In Australia, it was being told you must subordinate your economic security to a fool’s-errand of a climate policy. In Brazil, one motivator was being asked to continue believing that arming yourself to protect your family in a country where 1,060,000 people have been murdered since 2000 is extreme.
Perhaps the one thing that has dawned on nearly everyone is that the democratic world’s “end of history” period is over. The next step is slowly realizing that nationalism is not going away. The transnational elite – nearly all of it, anyway – including the news media, see this as unfortunate at best and are still attempting to snuff it out. Accordingly, nationalism can only be expressed as and channelled via populism. Populism isn’t a political philosophy or program; it’s an organizing method and a communications style, and the current wave is nationalist in character.
Nationalism takes many forms. Most have flaws and weaknesses. Over its half-millennium as a political force, nationalism has failed in some places and triggered catastrophic wars in others. Nationalism has also, however, proved the most peaceful, efficient, and effective way to channel or even transcend humanity’s inherent tribalism. This is particularly so when practised in the non-racial, non-sectarian, pluralistic form known as civic nationalism – as in the United States, United Kingdom and several other countries.
Should enough of the populist parties and their leaders govern successfully, perhaps the simplistic view of populism and nationalism will begin to shift. Perhaps it already is shifting, but we simply haven’t noticed through the mainstream media’s filters. The populists’ strong performance in the recent EU elections suggests it might be. The wins and policy successes in numerous countries in the face of widespread condemnation also show that policies breaking with orthodoxy are not merely popular but can be highly effective.
Canada, with the possible exception of Quebec, has been curiously late to this party. It’s a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic shaker if ever there was one. Yet we appear still to be at the elite/media dismissal-condescension stage. Even our Conservative politicians reflexively scurry to distance themselves from the merest whiff of populism or nationalism. It’s hard, however, to imagine our country staying away from the party forever.
Mathew Preston is a writer based in Alberta. He holds a Master in Strategic Studies from the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.